Innovation and Creativity: The Sources of Entrepreneurial Ideas

Thomas W. Mason, Ph.D.

By: Thomas W. Mason, Ph.D. - Professor Emeritus of Economics and Engineering Management , Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Category: Entrepreneurship

As I talk to people about the importance of entrepreneurship to the economic future of ourselves and our society, I frequently encounter people who say they would like to be entrepreneurs or at least more innovative.

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The number one obstacle to action on their dreams seems to be a belief that they do not know how to get a good idea. Their view of their potential to be innovative is unrealistic for a number of reasons.

Developing a new product or service into a successful business is hard, but not for the reasons people think. Successful innovation is seldom due to the brilliance of the idea. The likely path to commercial success and wealth is to find a need that is currently causing serious pain, figure out a way to reduce the pain and then execute well in implementing it. Google, for example, created almost instant young billionaires by helping us deal with the overwhelming amount of information available on the internet.

Ideas tend to be overrated as reasons for success. There are millions of new patents issued every year on inventions that may be brilliantly creative, but it may be decades or NEVER before people are willing to part with money to get most of them. It is a cliché among venture capital investors that it is better to invest in a ‘B’ idea with an ‘A’ team, than an ‘A’ idea with a ‘B’ team. Returns on their investments are far more likely when the quality of the people involved is such that they keep working to execute well in the face of the obstacles that arise in commercializing even the best ideas.

Peter Drucker said that bright ideas were the hardest and riskiest sources of successful innovation. He emphasized looking for unexpected events, stupid situations, needs within the current processes we follow and changes in things like industry structure, demographics and perceptions. For example, there are increasing numbers of aging baby boomers, like myself, who are baffled by the multiple of electronic devices that we use every day. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor admitted on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he had to call the Geek Squad for assistance in dealing with a home electronic gadget. That situation screams for innovations to make our electronics more user friendly, and I suspect the technology does not need to be invented – just applied better to alleviate our problems.

If the above paragraphs have made the case for seeking problems to solve, rather than flashes of creative brilliance on which to capitalize, the obvious question is: How do we better see the problems? Everyone from my grade school teachers to my granddaughters have had to tell me to pay attention. We all get lost in our own pressing issues of the day and fail to be aware of the richness of what is going on around us. The first rule to finding innovation opportunities may be to not look too hard, but sit back, take a break and consciously reflect on what is going on around us. There are other helpful hints, as well. Evidence supports the notion that diverse cultures that combine widely different world views in their communities are more likely sources of innovation and entrepreneurship, so seeking diversity in cultures and opinions should help us be more aware of opportunities. Like taking time to reflect, it can get us out of our comfort zones that box in our thinking. And, while you are seeking out those with different points of view, you should not neglect the bizarre or even the grumpy. Rebels and/or complainers often irritate those of us who are just trying to get things done. However, these people are often right about the inconsistencies and problems of the world in which we live.

Experts in an existing field seldom foresee the new wave that makes them obsolete because they keep looking at the same things in the same way. While having the knowledge of an expert might be helpful at times, innovation is far more dependent on being aware enough to see problems and their possible solutions, and then having the determination to see those solutions through to completion.

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